A Global Village
Issue 2

Refugees or Residents

When Camps Become Towns in the Western Sahara

Saba Shafi, Imperial College London

The Western Saharan refugee camps in southwest Algeria have almost been forgotten. In 1975 thousands of small tents were pitched in one of the most inhospitable regions in the world, filled with women and children, waiting for their husbands, brothers and sons to return from war. These Saharawi have proved themselves to be a formidable force, arriving in the camps with a literacy rate well below 10% and reversing it to one above 90% today. Although recognizing the benefits that international assistance has provided them, as the camps develop and the refugees grow more vocal, international development agencies are increasingly struggling to continue to work effectively employing traditional methods. 

A recent visit to the camps with Imperial College’s International Education Fund highlighted these problems. It became apparent that the future of international development in the camps depends on the ability of aid agencies to adapt – to truly understand and to respect the Saharawi people while reconciling the problems of working in a politically charged atmosphere with the ‘take-no-sides’ approach of many charities.

Disputed Territories
The region known as the Western Sahara was previously a Spanish colony during the period 1884-1975. When Spain left the country in 1975, it was claimed by both Morocco and Mauritania resulting in a conflict that left thousands homeless and remains unresolved today. This is despite a UN ruling in 1991 that provided for a referendum on independence for the Saharawi people or integration into Morocco. Such a referendum has never taken place largely due to a dispute over the identification of who exactly is eligible to vote.

Currently Morocco occupies two-thirds of the Western Saharan region with the remaining third, referred to by the Saharawi as the liberated territories, home to a few Bedouin and UN peacekeepers. Most Saharawi, not in the occupied territories, actually prefer to live in the refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria rather than in the liberated territories that are ridden with landmines.

“It is safer, it is where most of the development has taken place, it is safer ... We can be ourselves.”

Nowhere is the temporary sense of a refugee felt more than in the Western Saharan refugee camps, and yet nowhere does it seem less obvious. Many find it hard to believe that a refugee camp can have satellite TV, local elections, a national museum, a burgeoning tourism industry and its own radio station complete with entrepreneurial journalists. Despite the obvious success of development efforts over the past 35 years, it is striking that the region is still referred to as a refugee camp. No permanence of any structure – radio tower, water pump or otherwise – is accepted by any member of the camps. Indeed, the fact that the people still refer to their homes as campsites is a good indicator of local sentiment. Foreign aid has helped to support and build a work ethic and standard of education unrivalled in many parts of the world yet the Saharawis don’t see a future in the refugee camps dependant on the help of outsiders; they want to go home.

Good Intentions
Growing publicity of the region has led to large numbers of ethical tourists visiting the camps each year, all eager to support the refugees through events like the Sahara marathon and the annual Sahara film festival. However, a cynicism grows within the community at this influx of aid and attention, at the people who come and leave behind their sleeping bags when they depart. In the words of one of the refugees, “I would rather not have that aid in the first place.” Many people spend time in the camps without gaining any understanding of the culture and values of the Saharawi; assistance given without consultation is often perceived as patronising by the Saharawi.

The Saharawis don’t
see a future in the
refugee camps 
dependant on the
help of outsiders

There is a feeling that such good intentions, while helpful, are limited and rarely lead to an understanding of the needs and wants of the Saharawi people. Without such an understanding the success of any charitable mission will surely be stunted.

The Saharawis, however, are far from being ungrateful or at a stage where they could be independent from aid: the arid and inhospitable climate of the region, dubbed “The Devil’s Garden” amongst Algerians, means that the Saharawi are wholly dependent on external support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They remain eternally grateful to the Algerian government who have continued to back the Saharawi cause, not only providing access to hospitals, schools and airports but also allowing levels of autonomy to the Polissario, the government-in-exile of the Western Sahara. Spanish NGOs, perhaps feeling some post-colonial guilt, are the main international supporters of the Saharawi after Algeria. Indeed, the ‘success’ of the refugee camps is in part due to incredibly successful infrastructure development drives.

A Long Road Home
However, it is because of the Saharawi people that such development projects have been so successful and why future development in the region is easy to access and appealing to NGOs. Notably the refugees have maintained control of all services from hospitals to schools, water transportation to electrical supplies. Food distribution is under the supervision of local women. Indeed, the UNHCR places these camps in a different league to many others who are not only dependent on aid but also governance. These are the most well-organised and run refugee camps in the world. For example, the Polissario Ministry of Health was able to tackle a 1980s outbreak of the disease trachoma – reducing it from 18% of children aged 3-19 to just 3% within a decade with basic antibiotics and a ferocious public education campaign. As such, Saharawi influence on further development projects should not be disregarded. However, more recently the Polissario government voted against proposals to develop a piping system across the camps that would allow cleaner and safer water distribution – the permanence implied by its presence outweighing the significant improvements it would provide. Why continue development beyond basic infrastructure when you don’t plan on staying?

Throughout the process
the Saharawis retained a
significant role in
determining where the
money should be spent

Long-term issues at the forefront of the Saharawi mindset centre on concerns over disempowerment of the youth, loss of their culture and most importantly, a viable roadmap to return to their homes in the occupied territories of the Western Sahara. International development agencies might prefer to prioritise the growing of kitchen gardens that could tackle chronic malnutrition, or perhaps the stark lack of doctors and trained medical professionals in the region. The Saharawis are concerned about these issues but it is a question of priority. Their main aim is to return home. Ensuring that this wish is respected presents a challenge to aid agencies that must reconcile continued development within the camps with a need to reassure the Saharawis that their situation is temporary. 

The best projects, currently in operation, help to incorporate things that are important to the Saharawi people. These projects focus on living conditions and social inclusion in the camps, publicity for the Saharawi cause and education. One example is the annual Sahara Marathon, now in its tenth year, which is known as a race of solidarity for the Saharawi people. It receives significant publicity each year and is growing rapidly in popularity, with recent runners including footballers from Real Madrid. The race organisers encourage international participants to join the refugees: to eat with them, to sleep with them and then to run with them. The route of the marathon symbolically connects the camps, taking runners through the barren desert. It is known as the voice of the Saharawi people.

However, it is fair to say that the highly politicised situation has deterred many charities that do not want to be seen to either support the Polissario agenda or be tacitly answerable to it. In the past, the Polissario have been reluctant to allow any census of the population. This is a contentious issue, as these numbers will determine the outcome of any referendum to determine the status of the Western Sahara population as proposed by the UN in 1991. This practice has impeded the important gathering of medical data. However, such a challenge is not unique to the refugee camps - working alongside difficult governments is the remit of any international development mission and the Polissario are known to be more cooperative than most.

There exists a view that the camps are in fact, too saturated with NGOs. The many successes of the Saharawi people make it easy to forget that there is still much work to be done. The burgeoning healthcare system owes much of its success to public education campaigns and foreign aid from Spanish NGOs like Medicos del Mundo. Increasingly Saharawi women are being trained as nurses and medical practitioners but the camps are still in dire need of experienced, properly trained personnel. Diagnosing patients remains at the heart of the problem. As the Minister of Health explained, “Thousands die and we don’t know why.” The Polissario’s sensitivity to population surveys is frustrating, but not insurmountable.

Imperial College in the Western Sahara
Despite significant hurdles, it is possible for charities to work effectively within the refugee camps alongside the government to design projects that are celebrated by the local population. In February 2010, a group of students from Imperial College London went to the refugee camps representing the International Education Fund (IEF). The Fund, essentially a student-run mini-NGO, raised well over £10,000 for schools in the region. Throughout the fundraising and project management stages the IEF worked collaboratively with representatives from the Saharawi government to develop a program.

There were two parts of the project – one was to bolster the local blind schools and the other was to provide some computers for local schools. For a community that prides itself on social inclusion at all levels and ensuring no one is left behind, investment in specialist schools like those for the blind is very important. The IEF also spent significant time with both the government, heads of hospitals and schools and locals to determine which areas of education and public health they felt were most in need of funding. Crucially, throughout the process the Saharawis retained a significant role in determining where the money should be spent and how it should be distributed. Seemingly obvious, this practice isn’t always followed by many charities.

Defining the success of the project via the enthusiasm and involvement of the Saharawi, the IEF was able to develop where no other agencies had. The outcome of the project and the trust developed between the Imperial team and the government allowed the students to develop a healthcare initiative for the camps, despite previous concerns about regional surveys. This initiative is currently being developed and should be in operation by the start of the next academic year, October 2010.

The future of international development in the camps is certainly positive. Increased media coverage over the past year will serve to increase attention received by aid agencies to the Saharawis. However, it is important that any future development projects see the camps as being more than a refugee homestead. It is not the camps themselves but the Sahrawi people who need and deserve further investment. Portable development, like education, a healthy population and a sense of worth will last longer than any underground piping system – at least in the eyes of the Saharawi and it is to them whom developers are most accountable. 

Interested? Contact Saba at sabashafi3@gmail.com.

Saba Shafi is a recent graduate of Imperial College who has worked in a variety of roles within international development. She is currently managing a healthcare initiative in the Western Saharan refugee camps and is in the process of launching her own charity.

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